|insignificant but not worthless.|
|Puritan Blister #2- Losing Your Edge
by William Bowers
|For example, you wonder, what does it mean to "consume" music? That you merely buy it? That you download it? That you burn it, label it, and shelve it according to your personal Brian-Eno-centric decimal system? No, you say, because you are not just some acquisitive tool, or blind collector; you are a "fan," an appreciateur, an officionado, a participant in a grander cultural discussion. To truly "consume" music, you say, would require some scholarship, some sacrifice, some slow digestion. To recognize the flowerpot-wearing band in a poster on the wall of a "nerd" during a Simpsons episode, or to have "Whip It" in rotation on your "Crazy Eighties" playlist is not to consume Devo, you say. To consume Devo is to know their ideological and geographical origins, to be intimate with their failures, to study their DVDs, to know that the Strokes and many others are citing them as an influence on future records, to debate about Devo and win, to weep when Wilco plays "Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy" in New York at the beginning of 2005, to type post-Freudian analyses of Booji Boy for an imaginary journal, to feel ambiguous about Mothersbaugh's soundtrack work, to debate about Devo and lose, to spend precious hours searching for that Neil Young movie they were in, to design a cluster graph that attempts to sort out the significance of their run-ins with Bowie and Dylan as well as their reconfigurations of the Carter Family and the Rolling Stones, and most importantly, to explain to idiots that they weren't wearing flowerpots-- "Obviously, those are energy domes based on Mayan ziggurats, asshole!"
But how could the fruits of your Devo consumption be considered "information" or "knowledge"? Don't those terms imply some kind of usefulness or value? The word "information," as it is used to modify the contents of the Internet, seems like a euphemism. (Then again, I'm such a puritan that I'm not even comfortable calling much of what is on the Internet "content." Yet I am not so persnickety as to refrain from constantly misusing "puritan.") I mean, despite the net's amazing status as a legitimate resource, it is largely a realm for figurative and literal dicking around. I can't help but think of The Onion's story from Our Dumb Century announcing the debut of the "Masturbation Superhighway." (My first encounters with the net in the early '90s, before I discovered the semi-communities where contemporary-music "consumers" could swap "information," were so corporate and advertisement-riddled that I thought the "highway" didn't refer to a speedy route for getting somewhere, but to an aggregation of billboards cluttering one's view.) People with less puritanical dispositions might think that the residue of dicking around is in fact a very privileged kind of knowledge/information; no less than Marshall McLuhan's fancy self argued that the mind is "only truly engaged when at play."
To this, your brain-- trained to play hard via music and movies-- recalls the scene in the film Henry Fool when the title character refuses to feel shame about his "use" of porn because he says he learns from it, and refuses "to discriminate between modes of knowing." Your brain then says, "Devo were concerned with how porn reduced humanity to a kind of rubbery blur." Your brain then says, "Come to think of it, Devo were kind of puritanical."
Oh shit! Then your subconscious mind, trained by the Beatles and Ozzy Osbourne to test everything for backwards messages, realizes that the word for Devo's nominal cause, "devolution," when flipped, predicts the vagueness you feel about being pulled in so many directions by the contemporary music information you consume, your worry of having "no it u loved."
Quick, consumer of contemporary music information, name your top 12 songs about the apocalypse, or your top 12 songs that reference mass transportation, or your top 12 songs you wish A Certain Ratio covered, or your top 12 Mountain Goats songs, just using your mind, without referring to your music collection or your computer. If you can do that, declare yourself: AWESOME. But you probably couldn't. Because you're overwhelmed. You don't have time to patiently consume half of the great music out there, so you devour it on-the-go, like McNuggets. You download and burn in a vicious cycle; you are an info-glutton with exercise bulimia. Didn't there used to be a canon, you ask, a universally accepted answer to who started punk and why, to what's hip-hop and why, to whether Guided By Voices broke up or not and why, to what's the best-produced blog-broken jam of the week and why? The virtually endless forums for consuming contemporary music, as well as information about it, seem to make trying to come to even a personal consensus about contemporary music intimidating. It has too much past, too much present, and too much future, right?
Your 40GB mp3 player is both a frosty Kubrickian abyss and a portentous Kubrickian monolith. When you plug it into your ears, you enter an iFog. You started as its curator, only allowing the finest contemporary music to take up its non-space. Then you started including shit you hadn't even heard, but heard was good, and pretty soon you were importing-- alongside early Roxy Music and Gloria Jones' original "Tainted Love"-- covers of Run-DMC by a side project of a band you were in as an undergrad. You feel weird about this, but why do you have to be all hierarchical? Were you lowering your device's standards, or expanding its horizons? Didn't you used to say, back in the lo-fi days, that you liked how anybody could start a band? Why does the current multiplicity of bands annoy you? And how will you wrap your brain around the Amazon complement to actual bands' bricks-and-mortar-ness: the gazillion digital musicians and online mash-up-ists? Why do you need to demean them as "just some guy with a program who never plays out"?
Possibly you liked how your "knowledge/information" was a kind of capital (even though you once read some D.H. Lawrence book and then pretended to crave a democratic day without high-and-mighty proper-noun Artistes, a time when anonymous artisans would undercut the culture industry by making culture everyday and everywhere). You liked the esteem that came with perpetuating an oral tradition, but with the current plurality of disposable heroes, you can't determine who needs your mythologizing. It irks you how someone running a music blog is admired for introducing people to a new song by an "unknown" act: He gets some kind of cultural capital in the form of kudos and respect, even though he transformed the product or commodity (the song) into something given away for free. Who's going to want to listen to your fan fiction? But damn your luck, you went and got yourself addicted to music blogs.
Admit it: You were obsessed with your role in the conversation, and not with the actual music. That might be why you talk over the bands' performances at the shows you can't not attend. You need the music that you discuss to leave a trail of accumulatable, preservable property, though, so you can hang on to the artifact and hope that its prestige as a conversation piece accrues. Mp3s seem "faceless" to you, like KFC's processed glop, and because you don't have to work hard to "earn" an abundance of them, they seem without consequence, like the first charges on a fresh credit card. You thought you were deep and theoretical, but you were a superstitious materialist all along.
From Netflix, you rent Downtown 81 and Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. You marvel at how much simpler the process of attaining special-ness seemed in the films' respective eras. Yet you like how special-ness was kind of unanimously conferred on the acts profiled on those DVDs. Later that afternoon you are pricked to worry even about how many music DVDs there are to choose from. So you order that (backhandedly conservative) book The Paradox of Choice, and then barely avert having a freakout about how many books there are to choose from. The anti-corporate activist Reverend Billy decries the experience of monoculture as "drowning in a sea of identical details," but you feel that you are suffering from pluraculture, drowning in a sea of exponential distinctions (though you secretly maintain doubts about contemporary music's diversity). You read music websites and hope that their 24-7-ness won't erupt into meta-coverage of their coverage, like what happened with 24-7 news. (Uh-oh.) Then you skim a mature, fine-minded online forum. Then you skim a puerile, reactionary one. You are simultaneously exuberant and despairing about the democratization of hype. You are afraid that you've got the spirit, but have lost the feeling.
Fear not, though. Even puritans can change. Your vagueness about contemporary music won't last forever. Some of what you're experiencing as dispassion is just passion being meticulous, careful to the point of paranoia. Some of what you're experiencing as techno-fear is just a matter of conditioning: Back when you played cards before bed, you dreamt of possible hands. Now that you shuffle mp3s before bed, you dream of broken robot jukeboxes. What's the big deal? Stormtroopers aren't coming to take your vinyl away. You can still feel kinship when Smog's Bill Callahan sings that line "When I listen to a record, I stare at the cover," because you like to do that, and because you know that the cover of the album on which he sings that line is blank, an empty frame.
You're going to be okay. You just got screwed up when you were a kid by The Velveteen Rabbit and that Rudolph special that tried to force you to over-bond with your toys via sentimentality and guilt. No one else will ever know that when you shuffle your iPod, you hear a wail coming from the Island Of Abandoned 10-Disc Changers.
Article originally appeared here.
|Perhaps you're feeling it, too: Your consumption of a type of cultural information no longer feels controlled, or sustainable. (Since you're reading Pitchforkmedia.com, let's presume that you enjoy trying to keep up with "contemporary music.") Where you once felt that you possessed, or could possess, a body of knowledge about a subject, you now experience an acute vagueness. The anxiety produced by this vagueness is outing contradictions/hypocrisies in, and is thus toppling, many of your convictions regarding the cultural information you preferred to consume. You'd like to articulate your problem to some sexy bartender or sophisticated stranger on the train, but your argument contains so many holes that it couldn't honestly purport to unveil a thesis. Even the initial premises of your rant hinge on terms that you find sketchy or imprecise ("consumption," "culture," "information," "knowledge") and at least one oxymoron ("acute vagueness"). Poor you.|